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Lucky 13: The Art of Cognac - By pkane - May 24, 2017 - SF Weekly
SF Weekly

Lucky 13: The Art of Cognac

(Courtesy of Louis XIII)

“When I was studying wine and I said I was from the Cognac region, the other wine growers said, ‘Pfft, in Cognac, they don’t know how to make wine,’ ” says Baptiste Loiseau, cellar master for Rémy Martin. “Because, of course, it’s for distillation.”

In other words, even the guardian of one of the world’s most august spirits can trot out war stories about being the victim of oenophilic snobbery. Loiseau’s detractors meant that since everything his region produced gets chucked into a pot still to become high-alcohol eau de vie, the quality of the grapes hardly mattered.

They were wrong, he says: “Distillation is just the concentration of the most volatile components.”

If the wine has oxidized and tastes like rotted apples, that will only become concentrated as the eau de vie ages into Cognac. So he must be selective with the 900 growers who hope their wine will become part of the formula.

“The growers tell me, ‘You are so demanding,’ ” Loiseau says. “But yes, if I want to have Louis XIII in one century, I have to make sure they make the eaux de vie the same way.”

It sounds like the bar exam, or the admissions rate to a highly selective liberal-arts college, but last winter, of the 1,000 samples he tested, he only had to reject 22. That’s because the relationships Rémy Martin has cultivated with members of its agricultural cooperative date back many decades, and they, too, are masters of their craft and of the characteristics of their land. And even the few that don’t make the cut can be sold to other Cognac houses. Either way, the grapes are a “noble raw material,” Loiseau says, throwing only the faintest shade at spirits distilled from grains.

The Cognac region is divided into six terroirs, or crus, which radiate out from the town of Cognac in rough concentric circles. Owing to the aromas of its grapes, Grand Champagne is the cru that produces the best — and its name has nothing to do with the part of northeast France known for sparkling wine, although in each case it refers to chalky soils. Named for the French king who identified the superiority of the soil and stipulated that Cognac the double-distilled white wine had to come from Cognac the region, Louis XIII is distilled on the lees, or wine sediments. They’re what slowly allow aromas to unfold, and Loiseau’s nose is trained to suss out what has the greatest potential for aging.

Of course, he says, “when they’re terrific, we taste.”

There have been some shake-ups at Rémy Martin recently. For one, a late-spring frost — the first since 1991 — killed off one-third of the vines this year. Loiseau is confident the harvest will still be bountiful, but the fact that he’s the one reaping it is also significant. He’s the youngest person ever to hold his post, having inherited the title of cellar master from Pierette Trichet, herself the first woman to hold such a job at a major Cognac house. Unsurprisingly, he refers to his position as his dream job, and even though Trichet told the chairman of the company that Loiseau was who she wanted to succeed her, Loiseau still needed to convince his superiors that he wouldn’t bolt for some cushier position elsewhere in three years’ time.

After she discovered a 100-year-old cask that was “going in a different way than the others,” Trichet faced a choice, Loiseau says. She deemed it sufficiently worthy of becoming its own limited-edition Cognac, so she opted not to blend it with its peers. The result was Rare Cask, which Loiseau calls a “big success, a disruptive decision,” and after combing through the cellars, Trichet found three additional candidates that might ultimately yield similar results. It is now up to him to decide when they are to be released, if at all.

For lesser Cognacs, Loiseau is not opposed to making a Sidecar — Cognac, lemon juice, and triple sec or Cointreau — or mixing them with ginger ale and a little lemon. But for Louis XIII, the density and drawn-out finish would make that a crime punishable by death in several French departments (even though France banned capital punishment in 1981). Hewing between a change-averse ethos that can point to centuries of consistency and success and the cocktail renaissance is tricky, but Loiseau points out the tasting notes that come in waves from a sip of Louis XIII: almond, stewed apples, dried roses, nutmeg.

Food pairings are a bit counterintuitive. Oysters are out, owing to their salinity, but lobster works well. (“A big piece of lobster with just a drop of Louis XIII is a perfect match,” Loiseau says.) Caviar, as long as it’s rich and creamy, is good, as are hard cheeses like Parmesan or Comté. The biggest surprise, he says, was Spanish ham, like acorn-fed jamon iberico.

“It reinforces the woodiness,” Loiseau says, adding that it allows the palate to touch the cask.

Being something of a luxury product, there’s more than a hint of opulence to the way Louis XIII is bottled. Apart from the standard decanter and the larger magnum, there’s a 50-milliliter bottle meant to evoke perfume. Last year, Rémy Martin launched a Methuselah, a six-liter vessel made of Baccarat crystal that Harrod’s in London priced at £60,000. (Loiseau says only one has sold.) And the United States is Rémy Martin’s top international destination, now that anti-corruption crackdowns in China have put a dent in sales there.

Such excesses aside, Loiseau’s job has a certain ruddiness. By tasting Cognac all winter, he says, he never gets a single cold. And even though he’s the fifth-generation cellar master, several of his predecessors are still alive. One was born in 1924.

“He turned 93 last Monday,” Loiseau says. “He’s a small guy, but an incredible guy. When he’s in a room, you can’t speak. It’s ‘I know how we make Cognac, it was much more complex when I was doing it.’ He knows everything.”